Hamilton, Ontario, Canada — A computer simulation of forest fires shows the cost to human health from smoke can be a huge expense when timber is alight.
“The overall health impacts were significant, when compared to other related costs such as firefighting,” said Vic Adamowicz, a professor of rural economy at the University of Alberta who co-authored the study, Economic Analysis of Health Effects From Forest Fires.
One-third of particulate matter emissions in Canada come from forest fires.
The study examined a 2001 fire near Chisholm, Alta., and found it caused $9 million to $12 million in health impacts as smoke and tiny particles drifted 160 kilometres south to Edmonton. The price tag of the increased risk of dying, days where people had to curtail activity, lost wages and acute respiratory symptoms has never before been tallied.
The study on health costs from wildfire smoke will help forest fire managers decide which blazes to fight first.For example, a wildfire whose smoke plume drifts over a city could take precedence over a more remote fire.
In the case of the Chisholm blaze, the study found the cost to residents exposed to smoke was greater than any other pricetag associated with the fire, including the loss of 75 buildings, bridges and electrical transmission equipment. Only the $20-million estimate of burned timber tops the health costs in terms of dollars and cents.
Adamowicz said smoke from forest fires wasn’t a high priority in the past compared to fighting the flames and evacuating people closest to the fire. But that’s changing.
“If you talk to people in . . . wildfire management, they worry about air-quality issues. And they’re commissioning research on those topics.” The U of A study was funded by the Sustainable Forest Management Network and was published in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research.
The experience of 81-year-old Chisholm resident Marie Ward illustrates the emphasis by authorities placed on property damage over smoke-related health issues.
The house she lost in the fire has been replaced but Ward said she also suffered a flareup in her arthritis, breathing problems and stress during the ordeal. She’s never put in an official claim. “I just figured, I couldn’t just blame it on the fire because I have arthritis and if you put in a claim, they’d say you had it before the fire,” she said.
For two days during the fire, levels of fine particulate matter in Edmonton rose well above Canadian air-quality guidelines of 30 micrograms averaged over a day. Levels of particulate matter, a pollutant associated with respiratory problems and premature death hit an hourly high of 261 micrograms per cubic metre from a daily average level of about 12.